Tracking down the Benjamins

For the second week in a row, Fusion’s Manuel Rueda has published an eye-catching piece on Venezuela. In this one, he tracks down the owner of DolarToday, the website that tracks the unofficial exchange rate between the Venezuelan BsF and the greenback. The website has become a thorn on the side of the Maduro administration.

The owner is apparently based in South Florida, but Rueda does not reveal his real name, instead using the moniker (tongue firmly planted in cheek) of Benjamin.

The value added:

“Since November 2013, we’ve fought sporadic attempts to block our site,” says Benjamin, whose site started as a Twitter feed. “But everything changed drastically three months ago, when Nicolas Maduro said he wanted us in jail…from then on we’ve had days in which they’ve tried to block us every hour.”

Dolar Today says it circumvents censorship by creating “mirror” sites, placed on proxy servers known as Content Distribution Networks. Dolar Today’s staff places a cryptic link to these sites on its Facebook page, which cannot be blocked by the Venezuelan government.

When the mirror sites are hacked, Dolar Today creates new ones in a cyber cat-and-mouse game.

But so far Dolar Today has remained a step ahead of the government. Thanks to funding from donors whose identities Benjamin won’t reveal, the site has hired engineers to help in the fight against the Venezuelan hackers.

“The engineers we work with are geniuses,” Benjamin told me in a Skype call. “They’ve found ways to automatically create a new mirror site every 20 minutes.”

Benjamin says that seven years ago, there were around 30 websites publishing black market exchange rates in Venezuela, but most weren’t able to survive government hacker attacks. Dolar Today, which maintains a staff of 18 “well paid” writers and web programmers in Venezuela, is holding the line.

The whole controversy on DolartToday is just another sign that the Maduro administration has lost its marbles. They should know full well that, in a severly distorted market such as Venezuela’s, if you ban DolarToday, somebody else is going to come in a do the same job. It’s as easy as making a few phone calls to Cucuta:

Benjamin says the exchange rates he publishes are based on daily calls to several currency traders in Cucuta, a Colombian border city where bolivares are openly traded for Colombian pesos.

Benjamin gets the bolivar to peso exchange rate, then converts that to dollars. He says his method is so reliable that even financial news wires like Reuters have quoted his exchange rate.

Instead of correcting the distorted fundamentals that cause the black market in the first place … they want to shoot the messenger.

Read the whole piece, it’s well worth your time.